> Choral and Song
T. Walker; Meyer, piano; Cappella Amsterdam, Radio Blazers Ensemble, Reuss. Texts and translations. Harmonia Mundi 902097
This is an intriguing release, well conceived and well performed, that should interest those drawn to Czech musical culture and to Leoš Janáček's output in particular. Most listeners know this nonpareil composer through his extraordinary operas and perhaps his accomplished, evocative solo piano and chamber works. But in the manner typifying renascent nineteenth-century Czech Nationalist culture, Janáček was raised and trained in a choral tradition, which permeated his family and his early professional experiences. The new recording gathers a broad range of Janáček's choral pieces, ranging across his long career and varied thematic interests, in moods folkish, religious, secular and pantheistic. In earlier works, Brahms and (especially) Mendelssohn are perceptible models, but as Janáček matured artistically, he drew on other Slavic models (including Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky) and on Slavonic folk material and the particular qualities of Czech speech. The two-dozen strong Cappella Amsterdam, now beginning its fifth decade, performs with admirable ensemble and clarity under Daniel Reuss, their leader since 1990. The instrumental portions — which can extend to ocarina, harmonium, toy drum and harp — are crisply handled by the Radio Blazers Ensemble.
The program opens with six brief, melodically rich pieces Janáček fashioned for quartet singing based closely on his senior colleague Dvořák's well-known Moravian Duets. Here they employ larger choral forces, with alert and articulate accompaniment by Australian pianist Philip Mayers. Two slightly longer pieces connected with the world of animals evoke thematic textual links with The Cunning Little Vixen: 1885's The Wild Duck gives (choral) voice to a gun-wounded duck's lament for her children and freedom, whereas The Wolf Trail (1916) blends the registers of hunting and romantic entanglements. This mini-drama is basically for female chorus and piano; but as the jealous old hunter, Janáček — as in several pieces on the CD —deploys a tenor soloist. Thomas Walker, a Scottish student of Ryland Davies, has been making a European career largely based in pre-Romantic and twentieth-century music. His lyrical but rather piercing and poignant sound seems exactly right for this kind of Czech music: he's performed Janek in The Makropulos Case and would make a good Kudraš in Kát'á Kabanová. He has done due diligence in mastering the idiom stylistically. The death of the composer's twenty-year-old daughter Olga, in 1903, profoundly marked his work on Jenůfa;he also wrote a haunting meditation on the event for tenor and chorus, launched and underpinned by piano.
Very different in spirit and form is the nineteen-part Nursery Rhymes, which may remind some listeners of Bartók and Stravinsky's efforts in capturing a farcical folk ethos. The tone ranges from ethereal to an almost klezmer-like whimsicality: flexible rhythm is key, and piano, clarinets, chorus and tenor rise to the challenges. An early Ave Maria turns out to be not a liturgical setting but a treatment of Byron's version of the prayer in Don Juan. More individual and Slavonic in spirit is the sixteen-minute Otčenáš (Our Father), a Lord's Prayer setting incorporating some haunting writing for the harmonium and tenor. The disc incorporates also Our Evenings, the first piece of the keyboard collection On the Overgrown Path, played mellowly on the harmonium. Admirably the booklet has lyrics clearly printed in Czech, English, French and German.